edward cavanagh reviews paul landau



Paul S. Landau. Popular Politics in the History of South Africa, 1400-1948. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. xvi + 300 pp. $90.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-521-19603-1.

Reviewed by Edward Cavanagh (University of Ottawa)

Underlying each of the book’s nuanced arguments is the idea that highveld polities, in all their complexity and diversity, barely correlate with the “tribal” titles that were attached to them, labels that remain “political” today. Words used to differentiate “tribal” affiliations were simply that–words–which may have conveyed political realities (albeit problematically), but always seemed to miscommunicate matters relating to culture, tradition, and “the religious sphere.” Moreover, they were titles that too often glossed over the hybridization of lived experience. And many of these misinterpretations, Landau points out, continue to pervade historical and anthropological scholarship (and, though he doesn’t suggest as much, popular discourse as well). Thus, “[o]nce we stop thinking in terms of ‘peoples’, who had ‘beliefs,’” he argues, “the highveld’s political tradition, in its real situation in history, comes better into focus” (p. 248). He’s being modest here. What also comes into focus are the many parallels between the prehistoric and the historic, the past and the present, and believe it or not, the black, the brown, and the white of South Africa.

Needless to say, I find this the most important finding of the book. Although it has been a long time in the making. Martin Legassick, back in 1988, in what was quite clearly a reiteration of a number of revisionist lines of enquiry proposed by himself and others in the 1970s, claimed that all “attempts to differentiate Bantu-speakers from Khoisan, Khoikhoi and ‘San’, Sotho from Nguni, and, within each, subtribes from subtribes” were flawed. But, enamored of a Marxist theoretical framework, Legassick in these years believed that only “the social relations of production” united and differentiated communities.[3] With hindsight, Legassick’s reductionism seems overly simplistic; surely the picture is more complicated than that. Paul S. Landau (albeit with minimal reference to Khoekhoe and San) shows just how complicated that picture was. Irrespective of this revelation of complexity (which, funnily, more and more historians seem driven to reveal these days), his main points, reduced to their simplest form–namely, that religion was imposed from outsiders and turned into political discourse by converts, that tribal names and ethnic labels are historically problematic–are really not all that objectionable, and are, in fact, probably universal in the history of settler colonialism. For this reason, one suspects Popular Politics in the History of South Africa will find its way into many footnotes, and this work deserves the wide readership it will receive.


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